Friday, July 27, 2007

Translation: Paulo Leminski

LeminskiHere is another translation, by a poet little known in the US, I imagine, but highly regarded in his native Brazil, the late Paulo Leminski Filho (1944-1989, at left, from Alguma Poesia). Hailing from Curitiba in Brazil's south, Leminski was extraordinarily prolific, publishing poetry, fiction, biographies, criticism, journalistic pieces, translations, children's literature, performance scores, song lyrics, and photographs, before cirrhosis of the liver cut his life short. He also found time to become a martial arts master!

One of his biographies focused on João da Cruz e Sousa (1861-1898), a central figure in Brazilian Symbolism and pioneering writer of African descent. (Cruz e Sousa was born in slavery in Desterro, now the stunningly beautiful state capital city of Florianópolis, and died an impoverished victim of racism and tuberculosis in Sítio, Minas Gerais state.) The biography's full title, João Cruz: o negro branco [which translates as the Black White Man or the White Black Man], like its choice of subjects was significant; in looking at Cruz e Sousa's life, Leminski also explores the contours of his own experiences as a person of mixed ancestry (Polish and Black in his case) and as a self-declared Afro-Brazilian. Though his work did not really treat racial themes or subjects, like Cruz e Sousa's, Leminski's work also did not meet with disdain and incomprehension, but widespread acclaim.

A good deal of Leminski's best known poetry is brief and linguistically playful, almost defying translation; a poem like "Ali," which turns on the Portuguese word for "there" and homonyms formed through verb juxtaposition while also referring to and riffing off the name of his second wife, "Alice," loses most of its zip in English. He also like forms such as the hakai and Leminski's work also shows affinities with the Concrete work of his good friends Haroldo (1929-2003) and Augusto de Campos (1931-). One of the best sites for translations is Edson Froes's Kamiquase: p. leminski, which features translations by Michael Palmer, Chris Daniels, and others.

I've taken this short poem from Christian Rocha's Gropius page, featuring 50 of Leminski's poems. The title is a playful geneology:

Rosa Rilke Raimundo Correia

Uma pálpebra,
Mais uma, mais outras,
Enfim, dezenas
De pálpebras sobre pálpebras
Tentando fazer
Das minhas trevas
Alguma coisa a mais
Que lágrimas

Rosa Rilke Raimundo Correia

One eyelid,
Plus one, still others
Finally, tens
Of eyelids upon eyelids
Trying to make
From my darknesses
Something more
Than tears

An alternative translation, based on my exchange with Kai (thank you!) in the comments section:

One eyelid,
Then one more, then others
Ultimately many, tens
Of eyelids upon eyelids
Trying to fashion
From my dark moments
Something more
Than tears

Copyright © Paulo Leminski, 1989, 2007. Translation by John Keene

3 comments:

  1. A profesor at university in Madrid once quoted the poem las ascuas del crepesculo morado detras de un negro cipresal humean ... (google the rest if you're interested) to demonstrate the sonic effect which control of the vowels ("a" and "u" and "o"; excluding/limiting "i" and "e" which are "bright" verbs and lighten and speed the sound and reading of a poem) could produce in Spanish (the same is possible in Portuguese, too, of course). His comment made such an impression on me I can still quote that poem in its entirety a decade later (hearing the profesor's sonorous tones in my head). As I read the portuguese version above, the repetitions and monovocal effects and of the beginning lines are musical and make the poem work and identifiable as a poem to me. Could some parallel or equivalent effect be striven for in English? And dezenas=dozens, no?, why "tens," such a rare bird of a word in English?

    Kai in NYC

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  2. Kai, you're right about the music of the vowels and phonemes, sonority, and the cognitive and mnemonic effects they create in certain languages. I think for example of Keats, or Frost, or Montale, whose Italian motetti are so memorable on so many levels, but particularly because the phonemes mimic and embody the actions described by the words.

    Going backwards first, "dezenas" doesn't mean "dozens," though the temptation is strong to translate it thus--in Portuguese "doze" is twelve, and "dez" (dizh) is ten, so "dozenas" would be "dozens", yet Leminski specifically chose the decimal (ha!) word, for cultural reasons (the decimal system holds sway in Brazil, and there's a slant rhyme with all the plurals as well as with "trevas.")

    In terms of the vowels, I think they differ here from Spanish, especially given the nasal sounds, with transform all of the "um" phonemes, but also "en-fim," which sounds something like "eng-FEENG," sounds you don't get in Spanish (but closer to what you hear in French). Then there's the question of the meter, which is irregular, giving it a rather different sonority, both in terms of its beats and vowel progression, from much of the Spanish language poetry I know. There's almost the sensation of beating eyelids (figurative, I think, of the poets invoked, and his readers), which is what I gather Leminski is trying to convey.

    U-ma PAL-pe-bruh,
    MAIS U-ma, MAIS O-trush
    en-FIM, de-ZE-nush
    de PAL-pe-brush SO-bre PAL-pe-brush
    ten-TAN-doo fa-ZEH
    das MINH-ush TRE-vush
    al-GU-muh COI-za-a-MAIS
    QUE LA-gri-mush

    I guess another version closer to what you're suggesting might look like this:

    One eyelid,
    Then one more, then others
    Ultimately many, times ten
    Of eyelids upon eyelids
    Striving to fashion
    From my dark moments
    Something more
    Than tears

    ?

    I feel this is far away from the original,a and loses its clipped sounds, but perhaps I can find a happier medium with my original rough translation.

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  3. I don't know Portuguese at all well--I went through the foreign service cassettes a few years ago. The temptation is (too strong) to compare it with Spanish (e.g., "docenas": I stand corrected). I kind of dig that translation you just did above, but I see what you mean about the longer words slowing the momentum ... I don't know. I guessed we'd have to hear what others think.

    Kai in NYC

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